Amid the public storm in America over the fall of Kabul, it is important not to lose sight of other looming crises around the world—some of them potentially much more dangerous than Afghanistan. For if the US political elites were so surprised by the speed of the Afghan state’s collapse, that was largely because the US media stopped paying attention to developments on the ground in Afghanistan once most US forces withdrew and Americans stopped dying there in large numbers.
A version of this essay appeared as a report for the Quincy Institute in June 2021.
Of these potential crises, one of the most menacing is the armed standoff between the Ukrainian military and Russian-supported separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Limited numbers of Russian troops (lightly disguised as “volunteers”) are stationed in the Donbas region, and Russia has deployed large forces in southern Russia to defend the territory against any new Ukrainian offensive. However, Russia has not annexed Donetsk and Luhansk (the two Ukrainian provinces that make up the Donbas) or recognized their independence.
Since the Ukrainian revolution and the Donbas rebellion of 2014, successive Ukrainian governments have vowed to recover the Donbas—by force if necessary. Despite a ceasefire in 2015 that suspended full-scale war, probing attacks and retaliations by both sides have led to repeated clashes, as in March and April of this year. Successive US administrations have expressed strong support for the Ukrainian side and for future NATO membership (so far blocked by Germany and France), though they have stopped short of promising to defend Ukraine militarily.
The Taliban victory may create a new and perilous dynamic. America’s defeat in Afghanistan could lead Russia (and China) to act more recklessly, just as America’s defeat in Vietnam emboldened the ambitions of the USSR in Africa and Central America. On the other hand, the political humiliation suffered by the Biden administration could lead it to try to recover its domestic and international prestige by responding recklessly to Russian actions.
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Only the most insane of US politicians and commentators actually want to go to war with Russia in Ukraine. But as the outbreak of World War I demonstrated, leaders who do not intend to go to war may stumble into a situation in which they are unable to stop or turn back.
The consequences of a direct US-Russian clash in Ukraine would be catastrophic. A full-scale conventional war would have the strong potential to escalate into nuclear war and the annihilation of most of humanity. Even a limited war would cause a ruinous global economic crisis, necessitate the dispatch of huge US armed forces to Europe, and destroy for the foreseeable future any chance of serious action against climate change. China might well seize the chance to conquer Taiwan, leaving the United States to face a war with the world’s other two greatest military powers simultaneously. Finally, given the huge superiority of Russia’s armed forces over Ukraine’s, the very limited number of US forces in Europe, and the deep unwillingness of European countries to confront Russia militarily, the strong likelihood is that Russia would win a limited war in Ukraine, seizing much more Ukrainian territory and imposing a shattering humiliation on the US and the West.
Yet perhaps the most tragic aspect of the seemingly unending Donbas dispute is that, while it may be one of the most dangerous crises in the world today, it is also in principle the most easily solved. A solution exists that was drawn up by France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine and endorsed by the US, the European Union, and the United Nations. This solution corresponds to democratic practice, international law and tradition, and America’s own past approach to the settlement of ethnic and separatist conflicts. Moreover, it requires no concessions of real substance by either Ukraine or the US.
The depth of Russia’s commitment to this solution would of course have to be carefully tested in practice; but if US administrations, the political establishment, and the mainstream media have quietly buried it, this is because of the refusal of Ukrainian governments to implement the solution and the refusal of the United States to put pressure on them to do so.
This solution to the Donbas dispute lies in the “Minsk II” agreement, reached in February 2015 by the leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine meeting under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The key military element of Minsk II is the disarmament of the separatists and the withdrawal of Russian “volunteer” forces, together with a vaguely worded suggestion for the temporary removal the Ukrainian armed forces (exclusive of border guards). The key political element consists of three essential and mutually dependent parts: demilitarization; a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, including control of the border with Russia; and full autonomy for the Donbas in the context of the decentralization of power in Ukraine as a whole.
The Minsk II Protocol was endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council, including the United States. Samantha Power, then US ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council in June 2015, “The consensus here, and in the international community, remains that Minsk’s implementation is the only way out of this deadly conflict.” Both subsequent US administrations have officially supported the Minsk II Protocol. Yet the settlement envisioned by Minsk II has not come to pass. No political agreement on autonomy for the Donbas has been reached, Ukrainian sovereignty has not been restored, separatist forces have not disarmed, and Russian “volunteers” have not withdrawn.
Three intertwined issues have so far blocked implementation: the inability to reach agreement between Kiev, Moscow, and the separatist leadership on the terms of permanent Donbas autonomy; the sequence in which the establishment of local autonomy and the resumption of Ukrainian control of the border with Russia are to occur; and how to secure the long-term autonomy of the region against an attempt by Kiev to impose central control.
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Successive Ukrainian governments have insisted that Ukraine take full control of the frontier with Russia in the Donbas as the first step in a settlement, and that all local forces be disarmed or withdrawn. This must be done, in Ukraine’s view, before local elections are held and before the Ukrainian parliament passes a law permanently changing the country’s constitution to accommodate Donbas autonomy. The argument is that otherwise the elections would be rigged by Moscow and its local allies. The Russian government and the separatist leadership, for their part, have argued that if Ukraine is allowed to establish full control before local elections and a change to the constitution, Kiev will itself rig or cancel the elections and forget about autonomy.
The Ukrainian parliament did pass a law on special status for part of the Donbas on March 17, 2015, but the law was only provisional, and it was not to come into effect until after Donetsk and Luhansk held elections under Ukrainian law and allowed the restoration of Ukrainian authority. Ukraine made no commitment to revise its constitution to provide for decentralization and Russian language rights—moves that are absolutely essential if the inhabitants of the Donbas and other Russian-speaking areas are to feel like full citizens of Ukraine, and which should be insisted upon by the United States and the European Union as a matter of democratic principle. The Ukrainian parliament granted far more limited powers to the region than those envisioned under Minsk II. In particular, all powers over the police and courts were reserved to the central government in Kiev. This limited offer by the previous government of President Petro Poroshenko faced strong opposition in the Ukrainian parliament, and it has effectively been withdrawn by the present administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He has declared that Ukraine is not in fact bound to offer permanent autonomy to the Donbas. The Russian government has refused to consider a settlement on these terms.In July of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin published an essay emphasizing (partly accurately, partly not) the close historical and cultural ties between Ukrainians and Russians and condemning what he suggested was the West’s strategy of turning Ukraine into an armed enemy of Russia. He repeated this charge in a speech to the Vaidal Discussion Club in October. His language was echoed in an article by former president Dmitri Medvedev and in the increasingly harsh rhetoric of the Russian media. Putin’s essay contains a strong implicit threat that if Ukraine does not implement the Minsk II plan, Russia is prepared to annex the Donbas as it annexed Crimea in 2014. The key passage reads as follows: “Apparently, and I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kiev simply does not need Donbas. Why? Because, firstly, the inhabitants of these regions will never accept the order that they have tried and are trying to impose by force, blockade and threats.”
Moscow does not seem to be planning an early move to annexation; but if Ukraine makes any attempt to recover its lost territories by force (as Georgia did in August 2008), then Russia will certainly both defend and annex them. It is therefore highly important that the United States does not let this conflict continue to fester.
A new US approach to peace in Ukraine should begin with a public restatement by the Biden administration of America’s commitment to the principles of Minsk II in particular, and to the idea of a pluralist, multi-ethnic, and federal Ukrainian republic in general. It is only on this basis that Ukraine can ever be brought back together again and that Ukrainian stability, security, and unity can be guaranteed in the long term.
Finally, and most important, repeated opinion polls in the Donbas and (before 2014) free elections there indicated that many of its inhabitants favored autonomy for the region within Ukraine and that equally large majorities in eastern and southern Ukraine favored a multi-ethnic state with official status for the Russian language and culture, not the ethnic-nationalist state promoted since 2014 by a succession of Ukrainian governments backed by the West.
Between independence in 1991 and the revolution in 2014, Ukraine was evenly balanced between supporters of an ethnic version of Ukrainian identity in the country’s western and central regions, and supporters of a civic version (with a strong guaranteed role for the Russian language and culture) in the east and south. The events of 2014, and the conflict with Russia that followed, have led to a situation in which ethnic nationalists (with Western backing) dominate national politics in Kiev. However, their program remains highly unpopular in the Russian-speaking areas and is overwhelmingly rejected in the Donbas.
To bring about a peace settlement, it is necessary to eliminate or discount the factors that brought about a failure of the Minsk II agreement. Chief among these is Ukraine’s refusal to guarantee permanent full autonomy for the Donbas. The main reason for this refusal, apart from a general commitment to retain centralized power in Kiev, has been the belief that permanent autonomy for the Donbas would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the European Union, as the region could use its constitutional position within Ukraine to block membership. The official US commitment to eventual Ukrainian NATO membership—however empty in real terms—has in turn inhibited the United States from playing a positive role in resolving the conflict.
These Ukrainian and American arguments are, however, a classic case of circular reasoning: So long as Ukraine is involved in a territorial conflict, it will never be invited to join NATO and the EU. Nor should it be. Even if a US administration were prepared to take such a risk, Germany and France would certainly veto it. And there is no way to solve this conflict on Ukrainian terms without victory in a war against Russia, which is impossible. Realistically speaking, Minsk II’s basic terms—an end to the war and autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine—are the best deal that Ukraine is ever going to get.
If the United States drops the hopeless goal of NATO membership for Ukraine, it will be in a position to pressure the Ukrainian government and parliament to agree to a “Minsk III” by the credible threat of a withdrawal of US aid and political support. And if Moscow were to reject or sabotage this agreement, or permit the Donbas separatists to do so, then all existing Western sanctions against Russia related to the Donbas and Crimean disputes should not only remain in place but be greatly intensified.
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The United States ought to promote the following main terms for a settlement:
§ A Ukrainian constitutional amendment establishing the Donbas region as an autonomous republic within Ukraine (including those parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces currently controlled by Ukraine); and
§ A constitution for the Donbas Autonomous Republic (including its constitutional relationship with Ukrainian national institutions in Kiev) to be submitted to the people of Donetsk and Luhansk in a referendum supervised and monitored by the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
If a majority of voters in the Donbas oppose the constitutional amendment, then they will have chosen to remain within Ukraine under its present unitary constitution. But in the likely event of approval in the referendum, the amendment would then be submitted to the Ukrainian parliament. If the parliament rejected it, a new internationally supervised referendum would be held giving the people of the region a straight choice between rejoining a unitary Ukraine and becoming independent, with a future option to join the Russian Federation.
It should be noted, however, that annexation is not Russia’s preferred option for the future of the region. Moscow could have annexed the Donbas (as it did Crimea) at any time during the past seven years but has refrained from doing so. Moscow is determined to defend the Donbas against any attempt at Ukrainian reconquest; but for good political and strategic reasons, it would much prefer that the Donbas remain a pro-Russian autonomous part of Ukraine. However, if Ukraine launches a new war, annexation will certainly follow, leading to a new crisis in Russia’s relations with the West.
In order to secure the establishment and maintenance of autonomy, the referendum on autonomy and the establishment of a regional government under the Ukrainian constitution must come before Ukraine takes control of the border with Russia. The police and courts in the Donbas Autonomous Republic would come under the regional government. Military security would be provided by a UN peacekeeping force drawn from neutral countries outside Europe and established as part of a Security Council resolution in support of the peace settlement. US and NATO forces would not be included, nor would Russian forces or those of countries allied to Russia. This peacekeeping force would also supervise and certify the disarmament of the existing separatist armed forces, the withdrawal of all Russian forces, and the withdrawal of the Ukrainian armed forces from their present positions in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The United States, of course, has a federal system, as do Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, India, and South Africa. There can thus be no objection from democratic principle to a federal system for Ukraine, or to special autonomy for the Donbas. Given the vast differences in language and culture between different parts of Ukraine, a federal constitution would seem the best political system for the country as a whole. Failing that, “asymmetric federations,” in which certain regions enjoy special status or one autonomous region exists in an otherwise unitary state, are also an accepted part of certain democracies.
Such federations include Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales within the United Kingdom; Catalonia and the Basque Autonomous Community within Spain; and the Kurdistan Autonomous Region within Iraq. The “Good Friday” peace agreement of 1998 that brought an end to the Northern Ireland conflict is especially pertinent to a solution to the Donbas conflict. It took place with the close involvement and support of the United States, gave regional control to the regional police force, and established cross-border institutions and guaranteed freedom of movement between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland region of the UK. This agreement has also been widely suggested as the only possible model for an eventual settlement of the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan and the unrest in the Indian portion of that territory.
Ideally a peace settlement would also include a treaty establishing Ukrainian neutrality for the next generation, modeled on the Austrian State Treaty and associated Austrian law on neutrality of 1955, but to be ended or renewed after 30 years. Though not strictly necessary, such a treaty would remove the greatest motive by far for Russian interference in and intimidation of Ukraine.
Ukraine and the United States would sacrifice nothing by such a treaty, since it is impossible for Ukraine to join NATO so long as the Donbas conflict and Crimean dispute remain open. Furthermore, the treaty would be a barrier against any future Russian attempt to dominate Ukraine, for it would also rule out Ukrainian membership in any Russian-dominated alliance. This treaty would therefore prevent Russia from repeating its bid to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Union, an attempt that provided the initial spark for the Ukrainian revolution of 2013–14. From Moscow’s point of view, this would be a blow: Ukrainian membership is essential to any hope of making the Eurasian Union into a serious international bloc. By contrast, Ukrainian membership in NATO and the EU, far from strengthening those bodies, would in fact drastically weaken them. On balance, therefore, Ukrainian neutrality would disadvantage Russia more than the West.
As for Ukrainian membership in the EU, this is ruled out for at least a generation to come by Ukraine’s corruption, political dysfunction, and lack of economic progress. The deep internal problems of the EU also make Ukrainian membership in the near to medium term quite implausible. These challenges include the immense costs of economic recovery from the Covid crisis and of EU promises to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2055, a pledge that would leave little money for the huge task of subsidizing Ukraine’s economy to the point where it could join the EU.
At $285 million a year (in 2020), US economic development aid to Ukraine does not begin to meet Ukrainian needs, let alone help prepare the country for EU membership. The miserable examples of corruption in the new EU member states of Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, and of chauvinist authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland, also make it exceptionally unlikely that the EU would seek a large and impoverished new Eastern member for many years to come.
Ukrainian politicians might wish to study the examples of Finland, Sweden, and Austria during the Cold War. These states lost nothing through neutrality and developed as prosperous, law-abiding, democratic Western societies that were able to join the EU after the Cold War ended. They could achieve this not through an EU or NATO accession process but rather because the elites and populations of these countries were genuinely committed to democracy, the rule of law, and regulated market economics.
The Minsk proposal for a solution to the Donbas conflict ignores the other territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine, the Russian annexation of Crimea. This was, however, inevitable. Since Russia has annexed Crimea (in accordance, it seems, with the wishes of a majority of the region’s population), no Russian government can give it up short of decisive defeat in war. Like other such issues in the world (Kashmir and Kosovo, for example), this question will simply have to be shelved until it is either quietly forgotten or fundamental changes in the international scene permit its solution.
These proposals will meet with strong opposition from Ukrainian nationalists and their supporters in the West, including some in the US Congress. Such opponents, however, have a duty to say what they themselves are proposing as an alternative to a settlement based on the Minsk II Protocol. Is it remotely likely that the West can bring enough economic pressure to bear on Russia to force it to abandon the Donbas without guarantees of autonomy? If not, can Ukraine win a war against Russia to force Russia to do so? If this is impossible, will the United States ever deliberately go to war with Russia to compel it to abandon the Donbas? Without a solution to the Donbas conflict, can Ukraine ever hope to join the EU?
Since the answer to all of these questions is no, the only basis for a settlement is that of the Minsk II Protocol. At present, the US approach to Ukraine is a zombie policy—a dead strategy that is wandering around pretending to be alive and getting in everyone’s way, because US policy-makers have not been able to bring themselves to bury it.
Opposition to a reasonable compromise over Ukraine also stems in part from a fear that Russia’s strategy there is a key component of much wider Russian ambitions, and that compromise will automatically lead to Russian aggression elsewhere that “challenges the entire architecture of the post–Cold War order,” as former US ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns put it in 2014. Yet this attitude shows a serious lack of historical knowledge, international perspective, and intellectual balance. By this standard, the Pakistani claim to Kashmir is the prelude to a Pakistani invasion of Myanmar, and the Argentine attack on the Falklands was part of a plan to conquer Brazil. The Donbas, Crimea, and Ukraine’s international alignments are vital issues for Russia in themselves, not paths to somewhere else.
For US policy-makers to be motivated by a wider hostility toward Russia to block a Ukrainian settlement would be a failure of logic as well as of statesmanship; the current Western hostility toward Russia stems above all from the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s actions there, and this hostility will be greatly reduced by an end to the Ukrainian crisis.
No serious explanation has ever been given by a US administration to the American public of why eastern Ukraine—a region that historically was of minimal concern to the United States—should in recent years have supposedly become so strategically important. The advocates of bringing Ukraine into NATO also forgot, or never learned, a rule of geopolitics: In the end, all real power is to be judged not on a global and absolute basis but on a local and relative one. That is, it depends on the degree of power that a state is willing and able to bring to bear on a given issue versus that which a rival state is willing and able to commit.
Russia’s willingness to bring power to bear in Ukraine has much deeper roots than that of the United States. In the case of the Donbas, if US attention to the region dates back some 30 years, the interest of the Moscow-based Russian state (later the Russian Empire) dates back some 600 years, and that of the previous state of Kievan Rus (whose legacy is disputed between Russia and Ukraine) up to 600 years before that.
To say this is not to justify Russia’s actions in the region since 2014, any more than to acknowledge permanent US interests in Central America is to justify all past US actions there. But great powers will inevitably take a strong interest in regions on their borders, and will react with suspicion and hostility to the appearance of rival great powers there.
The argument that Ukraine constitutes a US asset in the event of Russian aggression against the West is illogical and dangerous. First, the only really serious threat of military conflict with Russia is precisely over the disputed territories in Ukraine. Second, it is NATO, of which Ukraine is not a member, that exists to deter and repel any Russian attempt to dominate Europe—something that in any case is extremely unlikely, given both the comparative size of the Russian and EU economies and the lack of any evidence of such a Russian ambition.
America’s greatest interest in Ukraine is the prevention of a conflict there. Even a limited new war between Ukraine and Russia would distract the United States from much more important challenges elsewhere. If the US were drawn into such a war (not deliberately but as the result of a series of accidents), this would be a catastrophe for America, Russia, the world—and Ukraine itself.
Anatol LievenDr. Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is Climate Change and the Nation State.